If there’s one thing Guillermo del Toro excels at, it’s creature design. It’s not all he’s good at – dude’s made some really solid movies – but when I think of him, the first thing that comes to mind is the Fawn in Pan’s Labyrinth. Ron Perlman made up as Hellboy is second. It’s probably why he had been tapped to bring the vast collection of dragons and trolls in The Hobbit to life (he didn’t actually end up directing, opting instead for this film), and it’s why – despite finding the premise kind of silly – I was excited for Pacific Rim. Giant robots fighting monsters didn’t really sell me.
Offer giant robots fighting monsters designed by del Toro, however, and my interest is piqued.
In that regard, Pacific Rim absolutely satisfies. There are nine “Kaiju” (literally the Japanese word for ‘giant monster’) in the film, and none is a bland rehash of those before it. Each monster is aesthetically unique, often vaguely modeled after a real animal and exaggerated in all the right places, and has a particular “power” or method of attack which also separates it from the others (and factors narratively too, it’s why they’re so hard to defeat).
Del Toro is clearly influenced by Japanese monster movies of the past (there’s more than a little bit of Godzilla or Gamera in a few of the Kaiju), but the small details with which he infuses each monster makes every new reveal as fun as the last.
Del Toro’s knack for stunning visuals doesn’t stop with the Kaiju. Every special effect and design element is right on point, ranging from the “Jeagers” (the giant robots) to his version of apocalyptic Hong Kong. Pacific Rim is CGI-heavy (it has to be), but smartly avoids the overly glossy look of movies like Transformers. The robots, monsters, and settings are created with computers, but don’t look like weightless cartoons.
Everything has a definite weight, integrates well with the live actors, and shows its wear as the film progresses. It feels lived-in, which matters much more than just being cool or interesting to look at.
Where Pacific Rim begins to stumble, though many won’t care to notice, is in the plot department. The story involves the massive Kaiju mysteriously emerging from the Pacific Ocean and ravaging highly-populated coastal cities. In response, the world’s governments jointly develop and deploy and army of equally giant robots, Jaegers, to fight them off. After a few years, some politically damaging accidents involving the Jaegers cause the governmental powers to shudder the program and instead focus on building massive coastal walls to defend the continents.
The walls prove ineffective, so a group of former Jaeger commanders and pilots form an off-the-grid resistance-army-like organization, resurrecting the retired machines to stop the Kaiju once and for all.
The paint-by-numbers narrative isn’t bad, just unremarkable. The science fiction involved in operating the Jaegers and the origins of the Kaiju are semi-interesting, but don’t hold up to any logical scrutiny. Obviously it isn’t meant to be realistic at all, and it wouldn’t be fair to expect it to be, but there are a few moments that – even when judged on the movie’s own terms – had me shaking my head a little.
Pacific Rim’s biggest shortcoming, though, is the collection of shockingly boring characters. Everyone, with two notable exceptions, is a tired archetype, clearly included by necessity not desire. We’ve got our main protagonist, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), the washed-up former pilot reluctantly pulled from a self-destructive retirement. Of course, his career ended in tragedy, so getting back “behind the wheel” of a Jaeger is easier said than done. There’s Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), the commander with a rough exterior that we only later learn to appreciate for his soft side. And obviously we need the first time pilot, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), whose natural skill is overshadowed by a secret from her past.
To fill in some gaps, del Toro and co-writer Travis Beachim have also included a handful of boring composites to pilot the other Jaegers, including the moody rival with whom the protagonist is forced to learn to cooperate. Most everything which occurs on the human side of the story falls flat, except a really great subplot involving a mad-scientist of sorts (Charlie Day) and his run-in with a shady black marketer (Ron Perlman, who steals every frame he’s in).
Del Toro’s focus isn’t really on the human characters, though. He’s crafted an intentionally exaggerated action extravaganza, meant to pay homage to films from the past while also trying out something new. You can tell he’s just having a blast throwing ideas at the screen, giving it just enough connective tissue to work as feature film. It’s not actively stupid like many of its peers, and its technical composition is so far above the competition, it’s impossible to not recommend. I’m not one to advocate completely “turning your brain off” to enjoy a movie, but maybe just let it rest a little while you settle in for Pacific Rim.